Sunday, April 20, 2008

Er Nai, the long-winded version

Understanding a new culture really is like peeling back the layers of the oft-cliched onion, and there is a significant difference between "understanding" a culture and "knowing". As wonderful as books are, they are no substitute for experience, at least in my case.

It has taken me years and years to understand the ideas which any textbook on Chinese culture teaches, such as filial piety, ancestor worship, or the Mandate of Heaven. If I am actually just extremely dense, I nonetheless find comfort in the phenomenon that media and society reward people who succeed due to life-long obsession with their work, and not people who are just good at something from 9-5. In other words, immersion--in my case, just being here everyday--and not any actual talent, is what differentiates those who "understand" from those who "know".

My peeling of the Chinese cultural onion happens at instants, like epiphanies. My most recent cultural epiphany was on the "er nai" (二奶, mistress) system. In recent months, I had become more concerned and frustrated with the er nai culture here, probably for personal reasons: I was getting closer to marriage myself, and being surrounded by people whose own marriages have been violated worried me about the sanctity of my own future relationship.

An er nai is a woman who basically contracts herself to a man for money, property, and material objects, which the man provides in secret (from his family) and indefinitely or until he gets sick of the er nai. Er nai are nearly always young women, say 20-30 years old, and their level of education can vary from none to college-educated. Being an er nai is basically a paid job, as er nai will not hold a job at the same time. Er nai who meet their sponsor through work will resign before officially becoming er nai. It's almost as if they agree to leave society: their friends are mostly other er nai, and many lie to their parents that they are making good money as a company employee in the big city, as the social status of an er nai is so low as to be shameful to their family and former friends.

As an American--and I believe I represent many Americans in saying this--having an affair is considered a grave offense, legally and socially. In an organization I worked in during college, one coworker's affair with the daughter of a professor at the university resulted not only in his divorce, but also ostracizing by coworkers.

So to be in China, and to hear daily of acquaintances' various net relationships, meetings in hotel rooms, and kept er nai, it is just a little difficult to imagine why society is not in an uproar. As a woman in a relationship, I worried if, when I get old and ugly and domesticated, my future husband would ever take an er nai, as some of his acquaintances already boastfully have done.

But, to my confusion, Chinese society has not fallen apart. Sure, some people get divorced, but mostly for other reasons, like irreconcilable differences. Most people know about a partner's infidelity, and live with it. How is that possible? I finally made the connection: because people in China don't marry out of love, they marry out of considerations like stability, similar backgrounds, and parental approval. Women marry men who have: 1) an apartment, 2) a car, and 3) a high salary. Men marry women who are attractive and "motherly": they don't have to be good conversation (i.e. intelligent) , but they have to be able to take care of the husband and his family, and be capable of having a boy a kid. In other words, because love is not the moral core of marriage, as it is in the West, having an affair is not socially so condemned (it is illegal, though). An er nai does not interfere with marriage because the man does not necessarily expect sexual satisfaction from his wife in the first place, and an er nai has no parenting skills or requisite social status which could be used to supplant the wife.

As for what marriage means, it's important to also understand that Chinese do not think of themselves as self-reliant individuals who look for a mate to share their lives with; they provide one half of the family equation, and look for someone else for the other half. Chinese choose the partner who they think is the absolute best they can get based on their own merits, and the bar is set very high to start. Personal love between two people is not part of the equation, though.

And so, once I understood that marriages do not necessarily relate to love or desire, infidelity and the er nai system made perfect sense, and even necessary. Regardless of how thick a veneer society paints on top of human instinct, physical sexual desire needs to be channeled in a way society can tolerate. If people were forced to either romantically love their wives or give up sex, society would fall apart. The er nai system actually keeps society stable because it is a channel that everybody--husbands, er nai, and even wives (albeit conceptually, if not personally)--accept.

Understanding how er nai and affairs in general made sense in the China context, and not in the Western context, I realized (again in an epiphany) that social phenomena in general could be analyzed as part of a "social ecosystem". In an ecosystem, each organism plays a specific and important role in keeping the system alive, and the entrance of foreign organisms can disrupt the system. A social ecosystem would work the same way. For example, in an ecosystem where marriage is based on mutual love, infidelity is shunned because it only breaks the system; in an ecosystem where marriage is based on mutual material and social benefit, infidelity supports the system by ensuring people also have a sexual outlet if needed.

Through research, I have found that, alas, I am certainly not the first person to think of society as an ecosystem, as anthropologists had "ecosystems theory" since the 1970s. One good thing about anthropology, though, is that it thrives on specific contextual examples to support major theories, so I can happily look for interesting examples of ecosystem theory in Chinese culture without necessarily rehashing. Even though anthropology has since then incorporated much more complex ideas of what an ecosystem is, like "complex systems science", self-organization and diversification, at this point I am still most interested in how aspects of society are related to maintaining balance and stability of the whole.

I can aspire to one day having an epiphany where more modern concepts of an anthropological ecosystem suddenly make sense. Until then, I am busy looking for other examples that can be explained in the simplest sense of the word: examples of habits or social phenomena I find absurd or offensive from within my Western/American ecosystem, but that can be completely rationalized once viewed from within the whole of their own system.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

In Defense of Your Ernai, by: the male ego

Ah, springtime in Jiangnan: fields awash in patches of yellow canola blooms...plum and cherry petals whipping around the picnickers beneath them...lovers meeting secretly before the wife gets home...

Yes, springtime is much more beautiful when it's shared with an er nai. And why not? You've got the money to keep one--rent an apartment, buy expensive gifts, and give her a handsome monthly allowance so she need not work. Besides, you don't love your wife in that way: you married her because it was time to get married, she was attractive enough, and even though you aren't, she chose you for your financial soundness. Your marriage was a transaction, but this is love! (well, lust, at least, but you need that just as much, maybe more).

So why not enjoy the beautiful weather with your er nai? What's that? You're afraid you might be seen by relatives or business associates picnicking there on the mountain, and be chastised by society? Don't be silly! Everyone does it; half of your own relatives have "worn the green cap" at one time or another! Besides, no one expects there to be a flame between you and The Missus; that's not what marriage is for. As for business contacts, you'll have even more clout when clients see your young, sexy er nai at the next banquet or karaoke fest. It doesn't matter that she comes from the countryside and is doing this just for the money; your associates are all men too, so they completely understand. Heck, some of them may text message your er nai in the next few days and hope for a little get-together themselves.

Wait...come back...why are you shaking your head? You're kidding me, your wife said that she is leaving you, and you have to go and save your marriage?! No, I can't imagine she could have found a better provider for her family, eith--wow, a 7 Series, was it? But the bag is probably a fa--well whadda know, that is a receipt from the LV store just in town. Now just calm down, these purchases mean nothing; I am sure her family will be up in arms about this spectacle. What do you mean they think "his financial success can give her a better material lifestyle, and that's what marriage is all about"? Now you're really talking nonsense.

Oh come on, don't cry, don't cry. You can stay with your er nai while this all gets sorted out...No, I'm sure that was not one of your business partners that just answered her cell phone; you must have dialed the wrong number. Try one more time.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Chinese cheese is superior to anybody else's

At the home of XM's mother's friend, Mrs. S-F, I was keen to see how she makes "tofu cheese" (doufuru, 豆腐乳). Much simpler than I imagined (I was thinking vats in the backyard), she put squares of regular tofu, soaked in baijiu into a Styrofoam picnic box and let them sit at 6-9 degrees C for a couple of weeks. When they grew a yellow mold, she put the tofu into jars and again let the jars sit for 20 days. And then, tofu cheese.

When I returned to the living room, her husband said to me, "I know why you are interested in tofu cheese." I thought, how does he know I enjoy learning about ye-olde-tyme ways of doing things, a la Renaissance Faire or Foxfire series? The answer: "Because it's Chinese traditional culture!"

Old China Hands should have been able to guess. Yes, 5,000 years of civilization brought us everything we know including doufuru, and all of it is sacred and untouchable. Unable to muster the expected reply, something standard and acceptable to the group, XM said, "Lauren just likes handmade things", and the conversation moved on.

Later that night, listening to the radio while XM worked on a drawing, the radio featured an interview with the headmaster of a local high school that was selected by the central government to participate in international exchanges. The school had hosted a group of kids from a school in Australia for two weeks earlier in the year, and also had a German girl on a one-year exchange.

On the program, the headmaster has a particular way of relating stories about these foreign students that irked me: while she praised them for certain "foreign" behaviors (zeal towards extracurricular activities, independence), all of these behaviors ultimately related back to how wonderful Chinese culture is. For example: "I was impressed that the Australian kids spent hours each night practicing the words to 'Jasmine Flowers' [Molihua, 茉莉花, a famous traditional song]. I was just astounded at how well they were able to perform it a week later." (Tone: It was a huge effort for them to learn a song in Chinese / I never imagined it was possible for foreigners to pick up Chinese/our song so quickly. )

I mentioned to XM this phenomenon of some Chinese people imagining China as the center of the universe. Is it really that shocking that foreigners can *gasp* learn a foreign language, albeit one that uses characters and tones? Is Chinese culture really so superior that foreigners are here only to bask in its wonderfulness? Maybe because I have travelled to other countries--heck, other places in China--I find it hard to interact with people who say things like "This teapot is superior - only in Jiangsu province can you find this clay." (Here I think to myself: yes, but other places have other clay, and then say, "Boy, that is amazing, you Jiangsu people are so fortunate; back home we have nothing of cultural value").

Because when you do travel, you realize that everybody (at least everybody in China) says that about their hometown (or about their province/China, depending on the scale they wish to pride themselves). And you realize, more importantly, that every place has something to be proud of, and everybody thinks fondly of their hometown, if not because it really is interesting, but because it's natural to have feelings for one's home.

XM assures me that this strange way of thinking and speaking is isolated to the older generation of Chinese, people now in their 50s and 60s. Why they think this way, we don't know. Maybe it comes from highly nationalist education in their youth, or maybe as a reaction to all of the (westernizing) changes of the past twenty years. I considered making the effort to share with them the interesting things I have seen outside of Nanjing, or Jiangsu, or China, but in the end I never do. I don't think they're so interested in listening, just talking. So even though I can't put on my really-impressed-foreigner face anymore, I'll still listen.